Understanding how to interpret tattoos found on gang members need not be a difficult process. Learning the difference between a gang-related tattoo as an identifier versus a nongang-specific body marking is an educational process. Many gang investigators learn to read and interpret tattoos as an ongoing part of the job.
A tattoo is a very important symbol of belonging to some gangs. It is one of the most dynamic indicators of gang affiliation to which a gang investigator has immediate access. Many gangs use tattoos to indicate membership in a specific gang. It is not uncommon, however, to find some groups who use no specific tattoos as identifiers.
Tattoos are part of a process of nonverbal communications used by gang members. Without the need to verbally communicate, a gang member, as well as observant nongang members, can identify a fellow gang member or rival.
Often found in books on gangs, both prison and street gang tattoos are available as either illustrations or actual photos. Newer publications often have a photograph of the gang tattoo. While many gang tattoos are somewhat standardized, the variations of tattoos, "artistic license" employed by the individual gang member or simply the effort to disguise the tattoo, demonstrate the need for education in the understanding of tattoos as an identifier.
Tattoos can be placed into categories describing their format. These categories provide a starting point for gang investigators. Each category reduces the tattoo to its most common yet simple element. The categories of tattoos are alpha, numerical, symbolic/pictorial and combination. Each category represents specific elements common to tattoos used by gang members. Prison and street gang members use different tattoo styles, but they share the same categories. Within each category, gang-related tattoos can be intricate in design, hidden within a larger tattoo and personalized by the wearer while still maintaining the gang's identifier.
Tattoos should be fully documented to include specific information as well as the location of the tattoo on the body. Photographs should be mandatory for the documentation of gang-affiliated tattoos.
It is also important to understand that in many cases the tattoo is a symbol of membership in the gang and, thus, is "gang property." Removal of a gang tattoo may be an outward nonverbal method demonstrating termination of gang membership.
There are cases in which gang tattoos are being covered in order to maintain the covert existence of the gang. If it is determined that a cover-up tattoo exists, water or baby oil spread on the tattoo may reveal its meaning.
Alpha tattoos use the alphabet to represent the specific name or acronym of the gang. This is a very common category used by both prison and street gangs. Some of the acronyms for the larger prison gangs include: AB for the Aryan Brotherhood; AW for the Aryan Warrior; DWB for the Dirty White Boys; NLR for the Nazi Low Rider; ABT for the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; NF for the Nuestra Familia; NR for the Nuestra Raza; EME for the Mexican Mafia; EMI for the Mexikanemi; SNM for the Sindicato Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico Syndicate); TS for the Texas Syndicate; and BGF for the Black Guerrilla Family.
The following represent only a tiny fraction of the known street gangs: ABC (Acacia Block Crip); ADC (Atlantic Drive Crip); ECC (East Coast Crip); NHC (Neighborhood Crip); SBC (Santana Block Crip); DLB (Denver Lanes Blood); ESP (Elm Street Piru); FTP (Fruit Town Piru); WSP (West Side Piru); BGD (Black Gangster Disciple); GD (Gangster Disciple); VL (Vice Lord); CVL (Conservative Vice Lord); LK (Latin King); ALKQN (Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation); BGL (Bell Garden Loco); VN (Varrio Norwalk); WF (White Fence); OLB (Oriental Lazy Boyz); and TRG (Tiny Rascal Gang).
Alpha tattoos may appear in gothic or old English font as well as other styles of lettering. Body placement may be important in some regions of the country, while not as important in other regions. Alpha tattoos may...